Leloir’s research in adversity

Sunday 2 December 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Luis (Callie Jones)Leloir, the Argentine biochemist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1970 — the first Spanish speaking scientist to win this award. It is claimed that his biggest legacy was proving that scientific research on an international level was possible in an underdeveloped country in the middle of political strife.

Leloir was born in Paris on 6 September 1906 to Argentine parents. The family returned to Buenos Aires when he was two, following the death of his father.

In 1932 he graduated in medicine from the University of Buenos Aires, but decided that his future lay in the laboratory, and he began work researching the effects of adrenaline on carbohydrate metabolism.

In 1943, amid political conflict and strife, his mentor Bernard Houssay was expelled from the university for signing a petition opposing the Nazi regime in Germany and the Argentine military government. Leloir fled to the US, and did not return to Argentina until 1945.

In 1947 he raised money to set up the Institute for Biochemical Research in Buenos Aires. He lacked financial resources and worked with low cost teams. At one point, unable to afford a centrifuge to separate cell contents, he improvised by spinning a tyre stuffed with salt and ice. Despite such problems, by the end of the 1940s his team was conducting successful experiments. They discovered the chemistry of sugar synthesis by yeast cells, as well as fatty acid oxidation by the liver.

Leloir’s work led to the discovery of sugar nucleotides, and he demonstrated the synthesis of glycogen from glucose and its subsequent breakdown. He then determined the mechanism of galactose metabolism (now called the Leloir pathway) and demonstrated that patients with galactosaemia, a genetic disorder that results in lactose intolerance, lacked the enzyme galactose-1-phosphate uridyltransferase, necessary for the conversion of galactose to glucose.

Leloir continued working in his laboratory until he died in Buenos Aires on 2 December 1987, aged 81, after suffering a heart attack.

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